As I was journalling this morning about a blog post I recently finished writing and what more planning I needed to do for my own Advent series on imageintoikon, I found myself reflecting on the exact words Christine chose for the Godspace Advent theme this year. The verb ‘to lean’ caught at my attention. As a physical movement forward, back or to the side, up or down, it could range from anything from a slight inclination up to a definite bend, and the resulting visible change could be infinitesimal or dramatic. And I reconnected with a mini-mantra that came to me a couple of years ago after a particularly acute year of physical ill health:
sit in the mess
listen to the pain
lean into the discomfort.
It struck me this morning that leaning towards the light could also cause discomfort. The comfort that most of us derive from the lift of spirits a sunny day can bring, can cause torture for a migraine sufferer. As a photographer, I know very well that light can blind as much as it can reveal.
The more I thought about it, the more uncomfortable the nature of light became.
So if one believes, as I do, that all light comes from God, and that one of the names of God is Light, and that this name describes something particular about the character of God, then one is forced to confront the knowledge that the Light who invites us to become whole in her, is not a cosy, reassuring figure. Light has a power beyond my wildest dreams. Light is Power. But the amazing reality of the invitation to lean towards the One who is Light, is that I am invited to become one with this Light. Indeed, Light longs to share every aspect of what light is with me.
I wonder, what would happen if I were to truly accept this gift and become a light of the Light?
I would have to be prepared for the real nature of Light. Not just the soft focus, fuzzy haze of bright cloud light, but the sharp brilliance that shows up exactly where all the shadows are. Accepting the light of Light would mean accepting the dark of Light too.
As a sufferer of depression, I am only too aware that there are plenty of shadows already out there in my life, and they cause plenty of painful stories to rise up in me, most of which I am highly reluctant to let see the light of day. So, why would I wish to open to the potential of experiencing even more? And yet, reading Russ Harris’s book The Reality Slap, I was reassured to read this:
This pain tells you something very important : that you’re alive, that you have a heart, that you care, and there’s a gap between what you want and what you’ve got. And this is what all humans feel under such circumstances … What would you have to not care about, in order to not have this pain? (102, 106)
The shadows tell me that I care about the Light. They tell me that I really am a “light-baby”, attracted to the mystery of what light conceals as much as it divulges. They tell me I want to be present to the Light in as many ways as I can, in all areas of my life. This is what I care about, and so this is what hurts when, for so many different reasons, I fall short of realising this is my purpose.
Leaning towards the Light then is going to mean leaning into whatever and wherever discomfort comes this Advent, learning to listen to what wisdom the shadowed messes of painful places wish to bring to me.
There’s a certain Slant of light, Winter Afternoons – That oppresses, like the Heft Of Cathedral Tunes –
Heavenly Hurt, it gives us – We can find no scar, But internal difference – Where the Meanings, are –
None may teach it – Any – ’Tis the seal Despair – An imperial affliction Sent us of the Air –
When it comes, the Landscape listens – Shadows – hold their breath – When it goes, ’tis like the Distance On the look of Death –
‘There’s a certain Slant of Light’
I find it difficult to comprehend where my time between the Autumn Equinox and Samhain (the Celtic festival for this cross-quarter day on November 7th) has disappeared to. I cannot remember even using it in any meaningful way. It is a strange time where dates and days of the week mean little to me on a daily basis. Perhaps that explains why I am so interested in following the light this year, marking my seasonal pilgrimage through the year, even if light can be such an unstable, insubstantial element in which to anchor myself.
Samhain brings a ‘certain slant of light’ which is an invitation from the ‘thin’ places: a festival to mark the beginning of the ‘season of dark’, the ending of the ‘season of light’ (the two halves of the Celtic year). Such an invitation explicitly confronts my modern fears about the nature of darkness, and the way my mind, body and spirit react to such shifts in the light with ‘seasonal affected disorder’ (SAD). In the northern hemisphere, Samhain brings the invitation to welcome the coming dark days as rest time, pause time, recovery time, planning time. Samhain celebrates such a movement in tones of light: from the warm, ‘hot’ colours of Summer, through the golds of Autumn, to the cooler shades of Winter, where blues and greys can dominate.
So Samhain is another ‘hinge’ point in my year, and one my Celt ancestors might have described in terms of a ‘threshold’. Those same Celt ancestors used Samhain as the opportunity in the year where they could deliberately recommit themselves to celebrating their own ancestors by remembering them, bringing their influence back into the present moment, and listening again for whatever wisdom the elders may have had for their present time and space. In my family, November marks the death of a great-grandmother and grandmother and the birthday of a deceased grandfather, so sorrow is never far from my thoughts at this time, though deep gratitude for their lives and the love they showed me is also not far from my surface.
It is no accident that the Anglican Church marks November as a ‘memorial for the dead’ month. It begins with the feasts of All Souls and All Saints, encompassing the twentieth-century moment of Remembrance Day on the 11th November, and lasts until the Church year comes to an end again with the feast of Christ the King the week before Advent begins. Other religions too mark this month with a variety of ‘festivals of light’, and it seems to be a repeated cultural and spiritual theme that this time is an acknowledgement that one cannot have day without night, dawn without dusk, sun without moon, light without shadow, and that winding throughout all our stories our ancestors played their part, for good and ill.
So Samhain is a tipping point towards the dark. And this year with waves of Covid-19 besetting our world, the threat to our mortality seems rather more present. Many have suffered the loss of loved ones, and in so many cases these died tragically isolated. Many have been overwhelmed by caring for the sick, in homes or in hospitals, battered by dealing with death in far greater frequency than normal. Even those who, like me, have learned the new term ‘shielding’, are not immune to the social zeitgeist of anxiety that permeates every news bulletin and often, every conversation.
So perhaps this year, I am being exposed to fear in a wider way than I have previously experienced. Ways forward into this Winter can at best only be tentative, when the coming of another period of ‘local lockdown’ seems increasingly likely and routines I have learnt in the last few months, will have to make way once again. In this unsettled, temporary rootlessness, the path into Winter already seems misty, murky and full of mystery. I recently read this deceptively simple description of mist in Garden of God’s Heart by Keren Dibbens-Wyatt, which seems to encapsulate so many nuanced images about the transitions between light and dark, between Autumn and Winter, between past, present and future:
Cloud covering the ground, sky descended, clumping in icy giant breaths across the garden. Laying low like a fugitive fog. Will you disperse gently, leaving a stratum of honeydew manna? Or just deposit damp droplets as you disappear?
Vanishing vapour, wisps of winter starting to enter the world, the heaviness of cold bursting onto the scene, touching the last vestiges of autumn unannounced and somewhat unwelcome after a lulling of milder golden days. A mantle of mist, a shrouding of mystery that will perhaps teach us about spiritual secrets and the patience we need to wait for clarity. (214)
In my search for such clarity, I have found myself returning to a favourite source of wisdom, Learning to walk in the dark by Barbara Brown Taylor, and I remember one salient point: that darkness is not dark to God. So, if I ask for the grace of eyes to see, the eyes of my heart might glimpse, recognise, embrace the light in dark; I might enter the mystery of one eternal paradox: this darkness is light, just as this light is dark.
It is so easy to be afraid of the coming darkness, a very real external reflection of feelings which can dominate inside me. I used to wake every morning saying ‘I don’t want to live this day’. Even whilst still a young woman I insisted to my family and doctors that I wanted a DNR notice on record in case of accident, knowing as I did so that inside I was battling with waves of suicidal thoughts. Now at least I know to listen for The Invitation who whispers ‘enter this day, K’, even though there are still many days I feel it is impossible to respond. Yet the miracle of the seasons turning in my own spiritual life is that there are at least some mornings when I can wake to greet, welcome and surrender to the gift of the new day. On these days I can pray more easily the opening lines of Thomas Keating’s ‘Centering Prayer’ that I say almost daily: ‘I welcome everything this day brings, since I know all is for my healing’.
As I wrote at the Autumn Equinox, do I want to live a fear-filled life or a creativity-filled life? This still such a ‘live’ question for me. The creativity-filled life I long for invites me to root myself in my present, paying attention to what is within and without me, getting curious about how the synchronicities of life my be showing me a new path of being, signposting the way to go for my healing. So the invitation of this Samhain for me is to garner the courage to just wait and sit in the mess of my present uncertainties. To pause before I try to fix. To clear a space so I might hear what those who have gone before me want to say to me, (whether they died recently or long ago, whether known to me personally or not). To listen to the wisdom they offer. To see what rich treasure they have found in their own dark. To follow their guiding as to where I too may find what I need for this coming moment, day and season.
All nature has a feeling: woods, fields, brooks Are life eternal: and in silence they Speak happiness beyond the reach of books; There’s nothing mortal in them; their decay Is the green life of change; to pass away And come again in blooms revivified. Its birth was heaven, eternal is its stay, And with the sun and moon shall still abide Beneath their day and night and heaven wide.
‘All Nature Has a Feeling’
(The above is an extended version of a post written for the Godspace blog to mark Samhain, November 7th 2020.)
I ignore all the ridiculousness around Halloween, the dressing up, the tricks and treats, but I do quietly celebrate the three days of All Hallows, All Souls and All Saints. These days form the bridge from October to November, signalling the beginning of the end of Autumn light and the movement into Winter light. They feel like a threshold of endings and beginnings. In the UK this sense is also reinforced by the ceremony of ‘putting the clocks back’, marking the close of another British Summer Time. And with any threshold comes an invitation, an opportunity: a time set apart to look back and look forward. This particular threshold is even named holy, hallowed.
Noticing the holy in the everyday is something I have been trying to train myself to do for years, especially with a camera in my hand. Even in periods of bleakest depression, I have tried to hold onto the graced knowledge that God is present in my details if only I have eyes to see. I was recently stopped in my tracks by a question posed by Brian Draper in his book Spiritual Intelligence: ‘how many ‘insights’ am I given a day?’ (33) My busy mind full of questions and questing forgets to be grateful for the mere fact of the ability to seek answers. I fail to notice I am not noticing how many replies cascade through me during a day. Draper goes onto ask: ‘how do we embrace that moment, make the most of it, use it to transform us?’ There is a desperate need in the world for both individual and corporate contemplative seeing becoming compassionate action for our communities.
Over the last few years I have been attempting to put this into practice in one very small way by creating and sharing what I call ‘acts of daily seeing’; contemplative photographs that are received, not taken, and posted on Facebook and Instagram. This is an attempt to pass onto the viewer of the final image the gift of a moment’s pause, the gift of a glimpse of the holy, what I call an ‘epiphany of the ordinary’. The making of this project arises from my own need to both see something different and to see that something differently, because I know God is present in whatever lies before me as well as within me, and my soul cries out with longing to draw closer to the God of such creativity. So much of my spiritual, emotional and physical healing depends on how I see at least as much as the gift of what I see.
So why do I wander around with blinkers on for so much of the time, not even noticing I’m not noticing? Why am I so reluctant to change my routines, to vary my routes through each day, to break out of what has become my habitual way of trying to make myself feel safer? Why am I so afraid to be free to see what God wants me to see? Could it be that I know deep down in my soul that if I allow the Spirit to change how I look at the world I will have to change how I act in the world too? There is a persistent niggle within me that prompts me to imagine just how much more God wants to co-create with me in this world – if only I have the courage to join in.
So my current challenge is to make minuscule alterations in my life, in the hope they will add up to great change; to ‘make small acts of subversion’, as Brian Draper puts it, deliberately breaking my habitual line of sight. There is no need to get overwhelmed by trying to take in and comprehend the big picture. God is calling me to small seeing: God is in the details, everywhere and always, in my here and my now.
Everything is holy, everything is ‘all hallowed’. As is everyone. Every soul and every saint is holy.
Such innate holiness just waits to flourish into all sorts of possible actions and directions by the Spirit prompting me to pause with curiosity. The Spirit prompts me to look again at what is before me and around me. The Spirit prompts me to notice what I might need, what I am missing. The Spirit prompts me to pay attention to the holy long enough to allow my actions, body, mind and soul, to be transfigured by my seeing.
There is, was and ever shall be, such holy sights, people and places. Thank God.
Thank God for those who have gone before me. Thank God for those poets, painters, preachers; those writers, teachers, sages; those leaders, healers, comforters; those spiritual, physical, emotional, artistic ancestors and ancients whose wisdom and way of looking at their world feeds me, leads me to wonder and ponder, nudges me to see God in a new way in my world.
That is the invitation of these days: following in their footsteps will lead to my hallowing.
As a photographer and visual artist I sub-consciously take note of the level, type, angle, and colour of light throughout the day, month, season, year. Yet in the past few months I have been trying to be more attuned to my feelings about the changing light rhythms that make up different cycles. In particular I’ve been paying attention to the Solstices, the Equinoxes and the cross-quarter days in between. This year my feelings about the Autumn Equinox can be summed up in two words: ‘gathering’ and ‘gold’.
Somewhere in my psyche my English cultural heritage associates the end of September and beginning of October as ‘harvest festival’ season, even though the agrarian calendar might show that in fact that cereal harvests are long over, and the next crop of winter wheat is ready to be sown. There are many traditional rituals around the cutting of the last sheaf, and its grain being used to make a communal loaf or sheaf of bread for the coming festivities when all the harvests – cereal, vegetable, fruit – are completed. And as I was thinking about the rhythm of cutting and sowing, I remembered being a child in Norfolk and seeing farmers burning the stubble in the fields.
And suddenly, shockingly, I felt fear: have I been cut down? Have I been burnt utterly away? For a moment, my fear coalesced around the word ‘gather’: I have nothing to show for myself, there is nothing to gather, nothing to store, nothing to bring out in the coming long winter nights and reflect upon. And it occurred to me: perhaps the Autumn Equinox is the corrective festival a perfectionist most needs to celebrate? For, of course, when I ask myself, ‘what do you have to show for yourself? What do you have to share from yourself?’, below the shrieking fear, the deep-down answer comes back: lots.
Lots of admittedly messy, unfinished, half-baked ideas, thoughts and projects; lots of acts of daily seeing, even if fewer of them than I would like were glimpsed through a camera lens; lots of words written, even if few of them are yet in a form that will make sense to anyone else; lots of doodles in sketchbooks that nobody has seen; lots of painted postcards that remain unsent. Much of this hoard needs sharing. Yet much of this hoard also needs ploughing back into my ground to form a rich enough humus for the next cycle of creation my Maker has in store for me.
In his book Spiritual Intelligence Brian Draper cites Mark Greene’s term ’small fruits’ to describe ‘small-scale change which can make a big difference to you and the world around you … It’s a way, perhaps, of taking stock and taking encouragement along your journey, of seeing what difference your journey is making.’ (41) The idea of micro-changes or ‘microshifts’ has become part of business management lexicon, but I continually find it a challenge to sustain them for very long. But something has been shifting, clarifying as I have watched the light lope across the ceiling of my bedroom these past few months: I have a very stark choice to make. Do I want to life a fear-filled life or a creativity-filled life? Which of these energies will take me across the next threshold of my becoming in a way which helps me flourish? Which of these energies do I need to gather to myself? Which of these energies do I want, need, to share with others?
So my inner perfectionist needs to confront the language she uses. I am not cut down. I am not left behind, brittle, arid and useless. I am not left a mere husk of myself after the anxieties of COVID-19 lockdown, with no sense of an opportunity to rest before the potential onslaught of whatever unknown health crises this winter might bring. And the best counter I know to perfectionism is the redemption of gratitude: ‘I will gather you to joy’ says ‘the searcher’ in Rilke’s poem.
I wrote a post on my blog imageintoikon in Lent reflecting on how often I need to remind myself to flex my ‘rejoicing muscles’, and I found that trying to increase my gratitude for what is present to me during the course of a day, week, month, season, year, is the key to this. My most regular gratitude practice focuses around making what I call ‘Grace Notes’ in my journal. But on the dark days I can only find a way to be truly thankful by digging beneath the surface stubble of my day, ’mining for gold’ as I go. ‘Mining for gold’ can sometimes be a rather arduous form of self-examination, and it reminds me of the hard, physical labour that is involved in ‘gleaning’ after a harvest.
In the Bible the principle of ‘gleaning’ is first laid down in Leviticus 19.9 and Leviticus 23.22. God tells Moses that fields, vineyards and orchards are not to be harvested to the very edges or to the very tops of the trees and vines:
‘When you reap the harvest of your land, do not reap to the very edges of your field or gather the gleanings of your harvest. Leave them for the poor and for the foreigner residing among you. I am the Lord your God.’ (Leviticus 23.22 NIV)
The principle of looking after others as being of equal importance to looking after oneself is thus deeply ingrained in the traditions of gleaning. So I wonder, as I look for all the golds the Autumn Equinox might bring me this year, what scraps of nutrition do I especially need to pay attention to? What do I need to gather to myself as encouragement or fuel or inspiration for the season after the Equinox? What gold can I share with others rather than hoard it to myself?
Ultimately, can my private, inner reflexive gratitude practice spill over into a microshift that could make a practical difference to someone else? Perhaps today’s literal equivalent of the Biblical principle of ‘gleaning’, in our city-centred, twenty-first century life, might be found in supporting ‘Food Bank’ charities? Perhaps the Anglican Church’s recent institution of making this time of year into a liturgical season called ‘Creation Time’ might suggest ways in which I can join in with a communal celebration of God’s gifts all around us, even whilst I am mostly home-based and solitary?
I am yet to answer any of these questions I pose to myself. But I know now what needs to characterise my celebrations of the Autumn Equinox this year: gathering, gleaning and gold.
(This post was originally written for Godspace as part of their series on ‘discernment’.)
As I mentioned in a previous post for Godspace written in 2016, I have long been fascinated by and inspired by Hildegard of Bingen (1098-1179), not least because despite her struggles with persistent ill health she was a writer, a composer, a scientist, a preacher, a prophetic visionary, and an Abbess of two Benedictine convents; and because, for me, she personifies what I called back in 2016 ‘expressive strength in creative weakness’. Here’s my concluding passage from that post:
It seems to me that it takes a very particular type of strong personality to be able to continue to live a creative, fruitful, flourishing life in the service of God and others; and that such a life-force is only found in those whose strength is based on a recognition of their absolute vulnerability and powerlessness. For Hildegard this life-force came from what she idiosyncratically identified as ‘viriditas’, a ‘greening’ of the spirit that forms the innate connection between God’s goodness in the heart and God’s goodness in the earth; a connection Hildegard personifies as Grace. ‘Greening’ is the epitome of God’s blessing to those God loves. She who was intimately acquainted with the brittle, desert times of pain, kept writing about the necessity of greening her own, and everyone else’s, spirit by contact with and obedience to her Beloved, the Creator, the All-Powerful God. She was determined to love her God and express that love in all the ways she knew how, despite the creative difficulties; indeed, through the difficulties. As I struggle to find ways in which I might join every day with the Creator in creating and healing, Hildegard’s expressive, exuberant celebration of the ways in which we may all still be greened continues to echo down the centuries to encourage me this day.
During the COVID-19 Lockdown I have returned to actively thinking about viriditas as part of my ongoing #projectgreen: an intentional, slow, gradual, mindful multimedia exploration of the colour green, asking what might I learn from its associations and usages (both traditional and modern), and what do I need to notice about the presence and absence of this colour in my life at this time ? So for example, a writing exercise in early May produced this:
I am green. I am processed water and light. I am spear, frond and plate. I rustle. I pool as pad on a pond. I impinge upon the sky. I am newness of life. I am Spring. I am calm joy. I sigh in resurrection happiness. I am emergence. I drink the sunlight. I am ribbed, veined, raised and rubbed. I am verve, energy let loose, momentum unbound. I am the very definition of go – go in, go on, go forward, go for it. I am all permissive freedom. I am unbound, the epitome of possibility, bursting from all directions, climbing up and creeping along, carpeting and clothing winter’s limbs. I am healthiness personified – eat your greens – each vitamin a mineral crunch of fresh nutrients eager to fuel up and be away to explore. I am a friendly embrace, universally welcomed, forcing myself into crevices, reclaiming my ground of being. I will always be with you, even despite your best efforts to shut me out, cut me back, tamp me down. I will return and return and return. I am dependable. I am hope.
Yet when I repeated the same exercise in late August I wrote this:
I am green. I am verdant abundance. I am the Great Mother’s handcrafted signpost: rich treasure lies buried beneath my rolling hills; this place will bring forth goodness. I am the colour of oxygen, the earth’s lung, seen from space. Even in my darkest, such velvety exquisite darkness that in winter’s shadows you might confuse me for black, I display the everlasting. My ancient forms are the stuff medicines are made of, curing the most pernicious of ills. At my brightest, freshly sprung, even in the weakest glance of sunlight, heart-songs lift up unbidden. I am returning, I am recurring. I am the very symbol of health, of growth, of new beginnings. Benedict’s ‘begin again’ is my motif, engraved into every vein, artery, stem and forest crown.
And yet, when I turn sickly, edged, blotched and patched at my most yellow, I am envy. I lurk within the poison of comparison. I am uneasiness, queasiness, nauseousness, another symbolic messenger, urging you to turn away from this place. I might turn opaque to block you out, translucent to entice you in. Wherever I appear along the sliding scale of my endless variety, wherever I may sit amidst the tumbling together of blue and yellow, I am always, but always, worth taking note of. For in most cultures, I am green for go, but not before you stop, wait, look. Now: go, grow, breathe, heal.
Along the way, I have taken note of when green appears in the books I study, the poems I read, the documentaries I watch. So, for example, I found Keren Dibbens-Wyatt writing on ‘Mint’ in her wonderful Garden of God’s Heart:
Such tender tips of lively greenness, your optimism rubs off at the smallest touch, and life even smells different. Possibilities open up and the now tangible tangents of our future days seem to start closer to where we stand. One aroma, one change of the fickle wind’s direction, and everything could be different, could be better. Let it be so. Let your soft leaves be for the healing of the nation’s hopes.
My Mum introduced me to Gideon Heugh’s poetry collection Devastating Beauty, and in ‘A Prayer’ he pleads:
Let the air be thick
with the spirit of green, slow things;
let their careful dream-light fill me,
pushing out what the world has put there.
Then in a documentary about one of my favourite painters Howard Hodgkin, I listened to Seamus Heaney say that Hodgkin’s work put him in mind of ‘The Trees’ by Philip Larkin (a poet I have read since I was a teenager). Heaney recited:
The trees are coming into leaf
Like something almost being said;
The recent buds relax and spread,
Their greenness is a kind of grief.
Is it that they are born again
And we grow old? No, they die too,
Their yearly trick of looking new
Is written down in rings of grain.
Yet still the unresting castles thresh
In fullgrown thickness every May.
Last year is dead, they seem to say,
Begin afresh, afresh, afresh.
Larkin’s line,’Their greenness is a kind of grief’ pinpoints an association that has been humming through my writings this summer, as I have charted the Sun’s arc, and marked moments of particular turning and potential thresholds of revelation. I realise that, as my attention has shifted through the building of light and its affect on the intensity of greens surrounding and greeting me in my Mum’s garden, that once I was past the zenith of the Summer Solstice, I have been looking at green in a (literally) different light, as darkness begins to make its presence felt round the edges of each day as the peak of the season passes. It sounds so obvious to say green is not a homogeneous entity, a single universally understood ‘colour’. Nor, of course, is the light by which we see ‘colour’. My late Summer light is not the same even across the northern hemisphere, let alone the light experienced on other continents enjoying different seasons. Something of this found its way into ’blank green’, a poem found from the words of my journaled reflections on this collage I made:
and suddenly there is no such thing
as a blank green
see the paper crinkled by blued glue into
precipitous mountain top passes
and plunging crevasses the shape of a missing
plate framing bokehed sun shapes
masking whatever is currently unseen
glimpse rust flakes becoming moss trails over flocked rocks
inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen
rich darkness enfolding me in forest
hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume
setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness
or perhaps only as far as the blue pool
where my yesness continues to echo off sunbaked
clay banks and the Spirit’s hovering ripples water
in a constant play of eddy and still in delight
unhesitating I plunge along the ridge of upturned leaf
stirring minute hairs freed from dew
parting to reveal a stippled pathway of midgreens
leading me on past the comfort of High Windows
and Larkin’s words of baptism in light
over the whale’s crustacean enhanced hide
onto the uneven terrain of the seabed itself
where murk and shadow disrobe what light
until I am spouted upward propelled into sky
until a rail steadies me
onto a look out over the aura borealis
a swirl of pea green against unimaginable layers
of receding blueback purpled at the edges
until returning to present I am pierced again
by the stripes of the tongued plant
(though lacking a mother-in-law how can I know
its’ true speech?) I traverse the hinterland of understanding
as it dips into hollows of familiar yellow and dances along
blazing minty ice cream heat heights
reaching past the softmeadow grass and the friable hayfield
into unexplored tropics extended fans and
upside down paintbrush trees mirrored
in jewelled swimming pools transfigured emerald
against a jungled sky
until here in this coolness
here where I am overshadowed by such unfamiliar shapes
here may I rest
This kind of welding of written and visual expression is something that speaks intently to me (as the name for my blog imageintoikon suggests). It is the path I wish to explore in future works, even if for the moment I needs must be content with an A4 collage made in bed, doodles made beside scribbles in a journal that is almost never beyond arm’s reach. Again, this brings me back to the tensions that Hildegard lived with. The reach of her ambitions were equally tempered by persistent ill health, and yet, her trusting perception of viriditas beyond the surface of all things, is what helps me, hundreds of years later, see the ‘greening power of God suffusing all life and creation’:
One of her great gifts was insight into what she called viriditas, or the greening power of God, the life force at work in all of creation. This central creative principle was key for Hildegard in understanding the vibrancy of her soul and her work. Viriditas is the force sustaining life each moment, bringing newness to birth. It is a marvellous image of the divine power continuously at work in the world, juicy and fecund … The prophet Isaiah writes that “the wilderness and the dry land shall be glad, the desert shall rejoice and blossom; like the crocus it shall blossom abundantly, and rejoice with joy and singing” (Is 35.1-2) This abundant blossoming is the provenance of viriditas. We are called to wander through the desert tending to the abundant gifts of viriditas, the creative life-force of everything alive. Hildegard’s wisdom is for living a life that is fruitful and green and overflowing with verdancy. She calls us to look for fecundity in barren places … The “ greening” of the area where she lived is powerful. She was a landscape mystic, meaning that the geography of her world was a means of ongoing revelation into the nature of God … The sacred is the quickening force animating and enlivening the whole world, including our own beings. The flourishing of the world around Hildegard was the impetus for her to embrace her inner flourishing … This is what Hildegard of Bingen could perceive beyond the surface of things: she saw the greening power of God suffusing all of life and creation. This came to be a primary principle of discernment – how green was my soul, how green was my community? What was causing dryness and barrenness?
(original emphases) (Christine Valters Paintner, Illuminating the Way, 161-2, 164, 170)
Hildegard explored this “greening power” in every manifestation she could imagine. As a herbalist and physician she wrote extensively on ailments and complaints of the physical as well as spiritual body. A cure for scrofula might include a paste made from earthworms, because they came from the same green earth which is saturated with the life-force of viriditas. Or she might use emeralds (in the twelfth century considered the most precious of all jewels), specifically because they had sucked up all the greenness of the earth that created them, so she used them as an element of a cure for diverse ills such as epilepsy, migraine or pains in the heart.
In one of her books of visions, the Liber vitae meritorum, Hildegard receives a dialogue between two characters: Heavenly Joy and Worldly Sadness. In the opinion of Heavenly Joy, Worldly Sadness is sad because she does not ‘observe the sun and moon and stars and all the decoration of the greenness of the earth and consider how much prosperity God gives man with these things’. By contrast, of herself Heavenly Joy says:
‘I possess heaven, since all that God created, and which you call noxious, I observe in its true light. I gently collect the blossoms of roses and lilies and all greenness in my lap since I praise all the works of God, while you attract sorrows to you because you are dolorous in all your works.’
Hildegard’s viriditas reminds me to notice the gifts I am given in the ordinary details of my life around me. Viriditas reminds me that the Spirit always waits in readiness to ‘green’ my soul’s barren places and our planet’s damaged earth. There is always hope within viriditas. In the action of the Spirit’s ‘greening’ I am becoming who God longe for me to be. In the light that is itself a gift, I am called to notice and collect together the incidents of greening around about me, like where ‘moss trails over flocked rocks/ inviting me to clamber into depths of evergreen/ rich darkness enfolding me in forest/ hear its promise to hold me in pined perfume/ setting me down on the winding track into untold lostness’. The Spirit’s greening invites me to open my eyes, to see where the Spirit ‘sets me down’ to find even more green, and though at first I may appear surrounded by ‘lostness’, the ongoing greening of my soul promises always to lead me into the heart of God’s calling for me.
So perhaps this is the key to both viriditas and #projectgreen: they symbolise the continual flow of emergence and re-emergence of gratefulness in me, which inexorably leads me to pause to praise my Maker the Great Artist, with thanksgiving in my heart; before I move on, powered by viriditas, into the day God lays before me, welcoming whatever it may bring. Today, using Hildegard’s words of praise of the Holy Spirit, I ask that viriditas will bless us this day, and all the days to come:
Out of you clouds
come streaming, winds
take wing from you, dashing
rain against stone;
and ever-fresh springs
well from you, washing
the evergreen globe [terra viriditatem].
(From ‘O ignis Spiritus Paracliti’ (trans Barbara Newman Symphony of the Harmony of Celestial Revelations, 148-151))
[A shortened version of this post can be found on the Godspace blog, written as part of their season on ‘discernment’]
(For those of you who didn’t catch this first time around on other social media platforms, this post was originally published by Godspace on 5.8.20 as part of their season on the theme of ‘Uncertainty’. I apologise it has taken me so long to post here!) (all images by Kate Kennington Steer)
I have lived with uncertainty for so long. I never know how much energy the next day will bring, whether I will be able to speak, to move out of bed, to get dressed, to self-propel my wheelchair, to feed myself, to listen to a friend, to prioritise playing with paint and print and photos.
I am better than I used to be at accepting the temporary limits my body imposes, and at adapting to the limits that might shift at any moment of the day, imposing rest, or demanding a complete cessation of everything in the collapse which a seizure brings. But sadly, I must confess I am not a patient person. My inner perfectionist stamps her foot, my inner critic screams venomously about my inadequacies, my inner taskmistress ominously cracks her whip. My neglected artist child gears up for a full-on tantrum. And yet, I know that the counterbalance to this internal self-punishment is to look out – up or down, it doesn’t matter – and flex my rejoicing muscles. For there is always something to be grateful for in my present, something praiseworthy will always be right in front of me. God is always in my details. Presence is always assured, and this moment of connection with thanksgiving is always certain and concrete.
The most accessible way for me to reconnect with the Giver is through my contemplative photography practice acts of daily seeing. It reminds me where I am rooted, not just through its subject matter, which often focuses on what I see as the glory in the things others overlook, but also through my breath, through my technical precision or experimentation, through my attentiveness to waiting to receive the moment to press the shutter, through a deliberate openness to Thy Will be done in this moment.
The images I receive in this way often reflect my interest in obscurity, in layers, in essences, in what is unclear, in Wabi Sabi, in ‘through a glass darkly’. Out of my contemplation of these themes, many of the photos I offer up as contemplative tools for others use distinct distortion techniques (like using macro or zoom lenses, distancing or foreshortening, removing context, and using strange angles). I suspect I do this in order to make the everyday unrecognisable, in order to re-appreciate the beauty and the mystery of what is before me, in order to encourage the looker to take time to see beyond the surface. I’m not trying to hide the Godhead in mystique, but for each image to create a pause long enough to show off the God who is so much more than I ordinarily perceive. I know my images often frustrate those whose first instinct is to ask ‘what is it?’ Yet I have found that when I ask this question, my need for such certainty, clarity, control and order normally ensures I miss the point of so much that resides in God’s Kingdom.
Still, I don’t underestimate the acute discomfort that can come when I look at something and I don’t know what I’m supposed to think. I can feel my whole body tense and revolt in response to the brain’s panic when it can’t recognise, name, catalogue, or signify what is in front of me. I feel stupid. I feel left out of the ‘inner circle’, the cognoscenti, those who must surely understand everything. I can experience a deeply painful heart-longing for direction from the artist: what was ‘intended’ when they made this image? Did they think of how it might feel to not ‘get it’? Very quickly, such a lack of understanding or clarity can bring me to a lonely place, making me feel utterly isolated in my confusion.
So often I find cry out to the Great Artist for the same kind of direction. I feel I am so poor at discernment, and even though I try to practice listening more intently through the making of a weekly sabbath lectio collage, hearing a single ‘word’ with clarity from amongst my complicated brain chatter is more than challenging. And even if I am able to distil out a word or phrase to mull over visually as well as prayerfully during the week that follows, I frequently find myself journalling to ask God, ‘Which direction should I face? Which of the hundred ideas I have before breakfast should I follow? And what about the hundred ideas I had yesterday? And the day before that? …’
As a result, I can feel rudderless. I can feel abandoned. Thus I have to remember again: I am powerless. What God is inviting me to do is to let go of my driven attempts at forcing the pace from my own willpower: God is calling for me to let go deliberately and completely. In letting go, I notice that the zeitgeist of anxiety around COVID-19 has crept under my bedroom door and is infecting me, reigniting those depressive tendencies in me that wait to rear up at the slightest provocation. And yet: I am shielded and privileged and white and prosperous (in practically every relative sense); I am able to read and write; and I own technology which allows me to access this virtual space here at Godspace, which means access to a gifted, loving, generous community who provide me with a safe place to speak what is on my heart. As I let go of all this, I can hear my heart whisper: What of all those who are voiceless in any or all of these ways? How do I help them to be heard?
Perhaps resisting asking ‘what is it?’ of an image seems a strange place to start living out the values of the Beatitudes, but something in me is definite that practicing glimpsing and acknowledging the presence of the Holy in the midst of an unrecognisable mess might just provide the smallest of openings for the Spirit to slide in – and then, God knows, anything mi ght happen. And so if I listen to that urge, rather than following the desire to impose what I define as order and ‘the answer’, I might get close to obeying the commission I sense God is asking me to fulfil: making an epiphany of the ordinary – showing the messy, dirty, unlovely ordinary as belovedly sacred again – wherever and whenever I look.
We look with uncertainty beyond the old choices for clear-cut answers to a softer, more permeable aliveness which is every moment at the brink of death; for something new is being born in us if we but let it. We stand at a new doorway, awaiting that which comes… daring to be human creatures, vulnerable to the beauty of existence. Learning to love.
Since writing at Beltaine, and then again at the Summer Solstice, the colours of fire have continued to dominate the photos I have received and the watercolour doodles I have painted. Hot pinks, oranges, violets rise up, and vermillion and scarlet find their place in this inner glory-blaze. This year, somehow for the first time, I am beginning to pay attention to these deeply saturated colour-flags, which are startling me with their ‘in your face’ demand that there is a vividness, a vivacity, a vitality in their presence here that I am generally missing, that is currently largely absent from my life and work. Although I am a ‘light baby’, drawn to its tracking on the landscape within and without, I can no longer bear to sun myself in the way I did when I was younger and higher temperatures only exacerbate my already struggling fatigue levels. Thus Summer has become my least favourite season, and one I have wished to hurry through in recent years. This year, through these colours that say High Summer to me, I suddenly remembered Lughnasadh, Summer’s Feast Day (August 1st or 6th depending on your tradition) and wondered what marking its colours might teach me.
The feast of Lughnasadh traditionally marks the first cut of the grain harvests, and the grateful offering up of ‘first fruits’. It honours Lugh, the Celtic God of Light, conjoined with the Goddess Tailtiu, the Grain Mother, whose legend claims that she was the one to clear the Irish lands so that crops could be planted.
The Anglo-Saxon folk equivalent was known as Lammas Day, and became the day of the great summer fairs, the literal bringing first fruits to market. Lammas feasts often cumulated in dances around ceremonial fires, as at Beltaine and the Summer Solstice. As fans of Thomas Hardy will recognise, the Lammas fairs were also ‘hireling’ fairs, where labour for the coming weeks of full harvest would be found. The name ‘Lammas’ finds its roots in the Old English ‘loaf-mass’. At the feast-day Mass a ceremonial loaf of bread baked with the grain from the first sheaf of the harvest would be consecrated, pieces of which was then shared out to each member of the community to eat. Thus the ‘fruit’ of that community returns to bless them in a very rich circle of life.
Yet Lunasadgh is more than just a traditional folk feast day, it is another cross-quarter day, marking the mid-point between the Summer Solstice and the Autumn Equinox. Significantly, the Celts also considered Lunasadgh a harvest season lasting roughly six weeks, and I note how those hot, vivid oranges, pinks and reds of High Summer turn into dusky hues at the edges of a flame. They haunt the curve round the sides of plums piled in the bowl and deepen into the shades of the blueberries I receive at breakfast, sharpening into the indigo-purpled iridescence of blackberries plucked from bramble hedges under September skies. They remind me the sun’s wheeling means gentle darkness has well and truly begun its descent. After all, the opposite side of the season’s wheel is Imbolc and Candlemass, which celebrate the earliest signs of Spring beginning to emerge from the February gloom.
Now I come to think of it, perhaps it is not surprising that deep purples become the colours of Advent, that second season of Lent; the colours tendril out in connections. And aren’t the green-tinged burnt oranges of sunflowers and ripened tomatoes which typify the Lughnasadh season, almost the complementary colours of these blued-purples of deep winter and Advent? There are patterns here my heart leaps to explore with paintbrush in hand! As Christine Valters-Paintner comments:
The fullness of summer’s growth has reached its peak and is now starting to wane and you can just begin to see the signs of nature moving toward her own storing up of energies for the journey inward the seasons ahead will invite.
Just one of the invitations of High Summer then, is the knowledge that the bounty and energy of the Sun/Son is now beginning to wane. It is a time of change and shift. Active growth is slowing down and the darker days of winter and reflection are beckoning. High Summer can have a bittersweetness that can be savoured.
And this perhaps reflects my deeper marked ambivalence to the pull of Summer: the lingering doubts that I have ‘fruited’ at all in the so-called ‘growing’ season; that I have anything that is worth harvesting and gathering and offering. In all the celebrations of the seasonal lusciousness of fruit-bearing, in the abundance and proliferation that is at the heart of Lughnasadh, I am also only too aware that some branches might be overladen with unripened fruit, that all there is a heaviness, and I am brought low to the ground. Perhaps now I’m down here, I can rest from all my labours here then? And perhaps the key to welcoming the humility of being ‘brought down’, is that I can lighten the load, jettison what is now unwanted and unneeded? Can I sense that I am being invited not to hoard but to give away all I am, even if, perhaps especially if, I do not believe I have anything to give that another would want to receive. The Invitation relieves me of the responsibility to judge my own efforts, because Spirit is the One who gathers my harvest as I release it, and Spirit knows exactly where each grain is most needed outside of my ken.
Perhaps this then is why the fest day of Lunasagdh has been known as the ‘Easter Day’ of the Third Lent? Christine Valters-Paintner notes that,
In the old Irish monastic tradition, it became a custom to have three Lents. There is the traditional forty days preceding Easter, then the forty days before Christmas (coinciding with Advent) also become a season of Lenten penitence. There was also a summer Lent beginning about three weeks after Pentecost and ending with Lughnasa, so in some ways this feast also becomes a third Easter.
I am being invited to strip myself bare once again, for the good of my soul, and for the good of my community. Perhaps this too explains the commingling of Lunasadgh season with the Irish Pilgrimage season, that time where good weather might last just long enough to make both an inner and an outer walk to a sacred place, whether mountain or holy well. And in association with the symbolic jettisoning of all they produced, some Celtic monks embarked on a unique kind of pilgrimage called Peregrinato: ‘setting sail in a boat without rudder or oar, letting the currents of love carry them to the “place of their resurrection.” It is a journey of trust and yielding.’ (Christine Valters-Paintner)
The idea of Irish Pilgrims setting out to scale the the Mountain tops then brings me back to the last set of connections that surround Lunasadgh: it’s ‘coincidence’ with the Feast of Transfiguration on August 6th, the revealing of the ‘true self’ of Christ to his disciples Peter, James and John at the summit of a mountain. The disciples are given clear sight to recognise Jesus as the Son of God, and fleetingly, before they fall to the ground, to look full in the face of his Glory. I wonder if perhaps rather than the marking the occurrence of Christ’s miraculous ‘quick-change’ moment this summer, it is this miracle of clear sight that I most need to embrace in this Resurrection season?
The High Summer sun can blanch and bleach objects of their colour, and other ways of seeing are required to receive the revelation of the myriad hues that are presented before me in this moment, day and season. And I cannot help but smile, that for all my anxieties and fears about what the coming seasonal darkening might bring, inside and out, it is ironic that in High Summer light I often require shaded ways of seeing at this time of the year in order to see the ‘true’ outlines of what shares my consciousness at this time and place.
As so often, my prayer for this season rises up: ‘O Lord, transfigure my seeing’.
O Lord, give me the Grace to say with the poet Rainer Marie Rilke, ‘I find Your trace in all things, in all’ (Book of Hours).
I am drawn to light, of all kinds, in all shapes. I am pulled towards the symbols and manifestations of the Great Light. And yet, paradoxically, through chronic ill health, I am often dragged into the most shadowed places within. The darknesses of depression are a constant companion lurking not far from my surface, but this very presence of darkness also provides a constant metaphor for my seeking of the Holy. I long to behold the face of God in these places where, as Barbara Taylor Brown summarises, ‘Dark is not Dark to God’. Over the years it has become clear that in order to examine the nature of Light I often need to stand still in a place of contrasting, but corresponding, shadow.
As I come to the time in the annual calendar when I can join the millions reaching back down the centuries to mark this summer’s Solstice, I find myself contemplating how the roots of the word ‘solstice’ might illuminate a continued Covid-19 lockdown for my parents and I, as we continue to shield one another. Solstice is derived from the Latin root words sol (Sun) and sistere (to stand still). As a contemplative photographer, Sol is often my sole subject, as I play with perceptions of things others often overlook, as I draw attention to the revelation of Joy in a colour, or Peace in a shape. I seek out the places where, in my own immediate context, the Sun has made herself visible, and by Grace, can be encountered in the shrivelling of a leaf as much as in the blooming of a daylily.
Just as over the last few years I have learnt to welcome and accept the gifts of midwinter through celebrating the winter Solstice, the shortest day, as ‘Blue Christmas’, so I am aware of a balancing need to recalibrate my appreciation of the longest day. Noticing how light passes by and through me when the earth’s axial tilt towards the sun is at its greatest (in relation to the northern hemisphere), is not something to which I normally consciously remember to pay attention. Perhaps this is because I associate the summer Solstice so strongly with seeing the dawn, and normally, seeing dawn is problematic for me. Dawn is indicative of the fact I haven’t been able to sleep and is a sign of a rough day ahead, rather than what I long for it to be: a purposeful invitation to rise up with energy to enter the new day’s beginning.
I have long been fascinated by the mystery of Solstice rituals and myths surrounding Stonehenge, awed by ancient practices and connections. I am drawn towards the idea of celebrating seasonal cycles, and making my own thanksgiving rites so that I do not take the sun’s blessing on the earth for granted. Stonehenge’s alignment of certain stones in certain lights at particular moments of the year offers a thread of connection back to my Neolithic ancestors who seem to have been drawn to the place as a sacred spot to honour their ancestors in their turn. I am drawn towards the stones themselves, particularly those which literally become ‘ringing rocks’, mined in the far west of Wales, a land where some of my own ancestors were born. These Welsh ‘bluestones’ have old legends of healing attached to their peculiar acoustic properties, so it’s not difficult for me to make imaginative leaps, seeing how varying ritual alignments of light might bring shifts in meaning through thanksgiving to healing to blessing. For obvious reasons, being healed by the Shining One is one of my prayers of longing.
As I wrote at Beltane, the metaphor of fire has kept cropping up for me throughout the Resurrection season so perhaps this year, if I cannot get up at sunrise, I might join in with another Solstice tradition and light a fire at sunset? Hildegard of Bingen saw fire as the element associated with the South, and so with abundance, with energy, with power, with passion, and ripening. Fire could be the prompt I need to align myself with these qualities in this season of my life.
By conflating the Pagan and Christian calendars, marking Solstice (21/22 June) as the celebration of the start of summer, often became confused with St John’s Day (24 June), which marked Midsummer. During the Medieval period in England a ritual of lighting three ‘St John’s fires’ became popular, with one of these being a huge burning wheel, which was rolled downhill in a dramatic demonstration symbolising the sun’s turning. The festivities using light and fire on St John’s Eve marked the counterpoint to those used on Christmas Eve, making literal links between the birth of John the Baptist and the birth of Christ the Light-bringer, six months later (25 December).
So my Solstice celebration this year might act like a plumb line dropped through history; across space and time my stillness might join with that of others before the Light of the World. Solstice might present an opportunity for me to align myself anew, so that the dawn might brighten my soul, so that the midday might give me strength in its blazing.
In the fiery heat of summer, how may I fan my kindled flames into passionate outpourings? How might my small store of energy be amplified by the power of the Light which is infinite? How might I allow this abundant Light to flow through me, to overflow for the good of those around me?
As I stand on the threshold of summer, the season of slow ripening, may I raise my face to absorb God’s Glory. As I encounter the Creator, may I bow down, aligning my whole body with God’s Will. As I am raised up by Grace once again, may I rise impassioned and envisioned, filled with light distilled from shadow, ready to serve and ready to bless:
The Lord bless you and keep you
the Lord make his face to shine upon you, and be gracious to you
the Lord lift up his countenance upon you and give you peace.
How do I hear the Holy Spirit speak to me? In soughing grass, in crashing wave, in a child’s cry, in an elder’s laugh? In sunlight on my lifted face, in moonlight on my crumpled bed? In an urgent prod that begins in my gut and lies heavy on my solar plexus? In another’s singing, in a poet’s image, in a ghostly whisper in my ear?
How about this: I hear the Holy Spirit speak to me in colour.
In the summer holidays of 2018 Creative Response encouraged my art group to work separately, but together, on #projectyellow. Yellow was chosen because most of the group agreed it was a ‘happy’ colour, therefore it was a ‘safe’ colour for us whose fragile mental health needs nurturing care, especially during the prolonged period when the group would not be meeting. I was blasé about the colour choice, sun and flowers sprung to mind and I was ok enough about that. My initial reaction was I didn’t particularly like it, and didn’t choose to have much of it around me on a daily basis, but I would play with the project and use it to pray for the others in the group as I went. I thought that was that. However, my curiosity began to kick in on the journey home from the last group session of the summer term. Immediately on entering my flat I picked up a camera and, as an opening exercise, tried to see whether I had any yellow in my home surroundings. It turns out there was A LOT of it about and I had not consciously perceived it before.
As I began concentrating and focussing on yellow in all its diverse shades, hues and textures, I became aware that I was getting very angry. In fact I was becoming livd, brimming with bewildering rage of a staggering intensity.
When I took this experience to my counsellor a few days later, she led me through some word association work on the colour red. By visualising my rapid-fire responses to its shades, hues and textures we began to see a way in which I might (just might) be able to bypass my over-active intellectual mind, and key into developing my subconscious emotional vocabulary by concentrating on colour.
The subsequent eight week exploration into #projectyellow was difficult to say the least. Living livid is exhausting. I produced an awful lot of work in a wide variety of media, and although that was hugely gruelling, some part of me was aware the process was being fruitful, useful, enlightening. For example, I stumbled over my associations between yellow and Easter, I rejected an image of God as wholly yellow, and heard my inner snob dismiss yellow as a ‘simple’, ‘too easy’ colour.
It was almost impossible to see the Glory in yellow; and for the duration of #projectyellow the Holy Spirit was mute about joy but clearly loud about anger. Recalibrating my emotional trigger rage response to yellow is an ongoing road, but at least I can now see it freely enough to acknowledge that yellow, like any colour, is a source pure possibility, complexity and mystery. One concrete change the project brought is that I can use yellow more freely in my painting than I did in 2018 and the wonderful work of the artist Marjolijn Thie-ter Beek has been an important part of this rebalancing appreciation journey.
All this means I have adopted the approach of concentrating on a single colour to focus on what my emotional, spiritual, mental and physical connections with it might be. So last November, when I came out of hospital, I began #projectgrey and despite poor health this winter the Spirit enabled me to spend hours exploring its subtleties (mostly from my bed): through collage, paint, poetry, photography and journalling.
This journey drew to a natural close at the end of April and almost seamlessly transfigured into the small beginnings of #projectgreen.
As I gaze through the lushness outside my window, I return to seeing the disciples in the dusty, baked stone upper room, in a hot city packed with religious from ‘all the nations under heaven. I see each disciple hearing the Spirit differently, each receiving ‘as the Spirit gave them ability’, each astonishing themselves by what begins to pour from their mouths. I see them flinging wide the shutters and streaming out of the doors with such passion, catching the attention of the tourists with their energetic performances, amazing each passerby hearing a particular, specific message through a voice pitched just for their ears…
However much my inner artist hankers to develop her ‘voice’, honing it until she has a distinctive, instantly recognisable style, it is not in her gift: my voice can only arise out of my hearing.
It is the Spirit who speaks to me in a unique way, in a voice created especially for me to hear.
It is the Spirit who gives me the means by which I may make a unique response to God’s calling forth.
It is the Spirit who gives me the nudge to leave my place of fear and security, insisting that the world needs to hear what the Spirit says through me, and you, and you, and you…
Hearing the Spirit speak ‘my’ language is the way God asks me directly to contribute to building ‘our’ Kingdom community.